Representation, Parliament and Brexit

24 Jul

There’s been a kind of perfect storm of issues to do with representation in the last couple of months – what with the male-heavy campaigns for Leave and Remain in the EU referendum; the result which called it for Brexit, and the accompanying discussion around distance between political elites and ordinary people; and assessment of the impact of our new, second female Prime Minister.  Both major political parties have also been embroiled in leadership contests which have presented different approaches to the question of representation of party membership, and parliamentary representation of the electorate.

Into this maelstrom arrives a new report by Professor Sarah Childs, ‘The Good Parliament’, which addresses how the institution may become more diverse and inclusive.  It is an opportune moment to consider representation in Parliament: not only is it the centenary of the Acts which extended voting rights to working-class men and the first women, but the need to refurbish our Parliament buildings presents a rare chance to experiment with physical and procedural infrastructure. These factors, along with the support of the Speaker, who has founded a Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion to carry ideas forward, mean that there is a unique opportunity to potentially transform Parliament into an institution which more closely represents the society it serves.  With only 29% of MPs currently female, and only 6% drawn from minority ethnic backgrounds, this is surely overdue; and the long decline in numbers of parliamentarians drawn from working-class backgrounds also needs to be addressed.  While the report does not deal with the EU referendum, it seems to me that it has added relevance because of it.  In the wake of evidence that the Brexit vote was carried by people living in former industrial heartlands of the UK, and in more deprived communities, working-class representation in politics could hardly be higher on the agenda.

The report looks at how diversity could be strengthened throughout Parliament’s work and practices. This includes measures to improve the family-friendliness of parliament – involving policies around maternity, paternity and parental leave, more flexibility in voting arrangements, and the headline-grabbing recommendation that breastfeeding should be better accommodated.  As Jo Swinson has already pointed out, the media focus on breastfeeding, which is a relatively minor recommendation in the report, says a lot about how far we have to go in discussions of diversity, especially as it applies to women in public life.

Childs highlights the importance of better representativeness in Select Committees, the parliamentary bodies which hold government to account.  She says that in 2016 it is ‘undesirable’ that some Committees are highly skewed in terms of gender in their membership.  This matters, because many of the Committees considered most important or prestigious, e.g. Foreign Affairs, are disproportionately male.  Meanwhile, the Women and Equalities Committee initially contained only one man, and now has two male MPs among its members.  The report mentions the blog I wrote last year, which remarked that this committee is also novice-heavy and that it would be good to think that ‘women and equalities really matter to the big beasts in politics – most of whom are still middle-aged men’.  The Good Parliament recommends that single gender Select Committees are prohibited, and that parties become more ‘mindful of wider representativeness’ in electing committee members.  This awareness of representativeness extends to committee witnesses as well – the experts invited to contribute should also be more diverse.

During the referendum debate, Michael Gove made the now notorious comment that we’ve ‘had enough of experts’; there’s been a strong suggestion that this view may have gained traction because ‘experts’ are so often the ‘usual suspects’: white, older men.  By looking beyond this group, the valuable work of many female and non-white professionals and academics would be recognised and reflected back to us all.

Representativeness also matters in media – the lens through which we receive information about politics and Parliament.  Lobby journalism remains even more male-dominated than other areas, and Childs advocates that Parliament works towards a situation where monitoring ensures that neither men nor women drop below 40% of lobby pass recipients.  This move would potentially encourage more diverse reportage, and help insure against any tendency towards ‘groupthink’ in political coverage.

As the dust begins to settle on the turbulent last month in British politics, Childs’ report should be part of the landscape in which we discuss post-referendum Britain. The ministers appointed to the Department for Exiting the European Union (DEEU) and Department for International Trade (DIT) – the new departments central to implementing  Brexit – are exclusively male. As we gear up to make the best of post-Brexit Britain we should ensure that diverse voices are heard.  There is a Select Committee for every government department – hopefully the ones for DEEU and DIT will not hear exclusively from white men of a certain class.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A century is a long time in politics …

1 Jul

I remember very clearly the first time I heard the word ‘quagmire’ – it was when I was in secondary school studying the First World War.  Our history teacher was rather old school, and after a brief outline of the day’s topic and a bit of class discussion, he would dictate notes to us.  As he expounded on the nature of trench warfare, the horrors of going over the top, and the terrible physical conditions endured by the soldiers, it all culminated in a ‘quagmire’ of mud and fallen men.  The image has always stuck with me, reinforced by the war poets.

 

And today, after the most tumultuous week in post-World War Two British politics, the word ‘quagmire’ came to me again.  A sticky swamp of unreason seems as good a metaphor as any for the leaderless void in which we have found ourselves post-Brexit, with implosion in both the major parties, and economic and political uncertainty of a kind not seen for decades.  Events, dear boy, events doesn’t quite cover the pace of change in the last few days.  As the pictures of Somme commemorations shared the airwaves with latest machinations in Westminster, the Tory leadership contest and disorder in Labour, it was hard not to juxtapose these two vital periods in history.  And it occurred to me that First World War vocabulary has been around a lot – people talk of being ‘shell-shocked’ following the Brexit vote; ‘bombshells’ have been dropped, and both Boris Johnson and Angela Eagle have been styled Blonde Bombshells.  The language of political shocks was forged in wartime experience.  And the particular narrative of class division between leadership and frontline experience, which is part and parcel of the narrative of the First World War, resonates now: social media abounds with ‘lions led by donkeys’ echoes.

 

In the middle of all this, another part of the story seems more muted.  After the devastation of not just the First, but also the Second World War, countries came together to build a peace.  During the EU referendum there was a lot of talk about being bound together by fear – fear of outsiders on the one hand, fear of economic collapse on the other.  But there was little celebration of the power of internationalism for co-operation, for peaceful co-existence, for prevention of extreme abuses of power.  Many of the challenges we currently face cross borders – it’s not just about people.  Ideas – political, economic, scientific – are built on collaboration as well as contest, on wide debate as well as narrow self-interest.  These richnesses of stable cohabitation lie underneath the imperfect European Union.  I am keen to see how they can be preserved in some new form of partnership. It has been made more difficult, but we mustn’t give up now.

 

The other big story this week has been European football – and we all know how in the trenches at Christmas, British and German soldiers declared a truce and played football in no-man’s land.  As the England team dropped out of the Euros this week, and as our understanding of Brexit unfolded around a story that a long-overlooked population had decided to stick it to the man, I hope we have not forgotten how to play the ball.  That requires teamwork and an understanding of the other side.

 

Hillary and the revolution

8 Jun

 

Long ago when I was a politics student, my supervisor asked me to attend a seminar group he ran, and to give a presentation on an obscure philosopher who influenced Marx’s thinking. When I duly turned up, I found the class in a basement room, and as I opened the door, the smell of leather jackets, young men and old tobacco was strong.  I was the only woman in the room.  There was a kind of hanging silence as I said my piece and all the men nodded earnestly at various points and attended carefully.  At the end there was a bit of back and forward intellectualising, and we all got up to go.  One of the leather-jacketed hoard followed me out saying how impressed he was – there was an air of surprise in his commentary.

 

Later on my supervisor said that I’d done well and didn’t need to attend the rest of the course, just get on with my own thing.  I took this as a compliment and buckled down to my project – by this time I was known as ‘the girl who did theory’.

 

In retrospect, I’ve wondered how good a thing it was not to carry on around the table with the leather jacket brigade, as they built their social capital on metaphorical beard-stroking (this was pre-hipster) over the subtleties of different forms of dialectical materialism.  Meanwhile I plugged away in splendid isolation, and left university with good marks for my Marx studies, and a lifetime supply of quotes to insert into political arguments …

 

I was reminded of my lonely furrow as woman of the Left, when news came through that Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic nomination for the US presidency. Of course, the problem for many – notably Sanders supporters – is that she is just not Left enough, that she is undesirably hawkish, too close to Wall Street, too much of a throwback to a previous flawed regime.  These issues have rather overshadowed the milestone of her achievement of becoming the first woman to make it to nominee to contest the Presidency in the USA – a country with even lower political representation of women than the UK, where 29% of MPs are female.  And it made me think that women’s fight for recognition and for power has often been a side order with someone else’s revolution;  how the Left in various guises has been known to put feminism on the backburner, while the struggle for systemic change goes on with other priorities.  I understand where these arguments come from, but it is extraordinary quite how quickly the issue of women’s representation – that’s over half the population we’re talking about –  can be subsumed under other considerations.

 

I have no illusions as to the flaws of Hillary as a candidate, but it is worth remembering how she has got there.  It has been by sitting at the table and carving a space in what remains a world designed largely by and for men.  A world in the USA, where reproductive rights and employment protection for parents are not universally provided, and where childcare is even more patchily available than here, and just as unaffordable for many. On these issues, she has a reasonable record.  And as for other progressive issues in social policy, foreign policy, environment and so on, she seems no more or less flawed than her predecessors.  Even Obama has not been perfect, nor has he delivered conclusively on every issue to which the ‘hopey-changey’ thing aspired. In the recent documentary series on BBC2 ‘Inside Obama’s White House’, one of the most striking parts was where Obama admitted his frustration that as President of the United States, there were times when there was little he could do to make things happen.  Even this power is limited. But Hillary can make something happen for women by taking her place at the highest table of all, and showing that this is possible.  Or you could give the whole handcart over to Donald Trump – but that’s not my kind of revolution either.

Let all flowers bloom

23 May

Listen carefully – above the polite tinkling of teacups and the clip-clip of pruning shears, you might hear the faint suggestion of a row brewing at that most English of events, the hardy annual that is the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Chelsea Flower Show.

Last year there was an audible murmur of disquiet at the fact that out of the 15 most prestigious show gardens, only 2 were designed by women.  Indeed, since 2000 only around a quarter of all show gardens have involved women designers, and only one female designer has won ‘best in show’.

To their credit, the event organisers recognised the issue and promised to do more to encourage female entrants and to rectify the gender deficit.  The RHS looked at its processes and found that female designers weren’t getting on the shortlists, and so have encouraged more women to apply to show their work at Chelsea. This year the number of show gardens has been increased to 17, and 6 have been designed by women. So far, so good.  Among the show gardens is the first to be entered by a black female designer, Juliet Sargeant.  She has been quoted as saying that horticulture is quite a traditional profession and could do more to encourage participation by people from all walks of life in the flower show, and from ethnic minorities in particular.

While some (notably Diarmuid Gavin the TV gardening veteran) have been supportive of her comments, other including Alan Titchmarsh have been critical, saying that gardening is a great leveller enjoyed by all.  The Chelsea flower show selection panel chair has argued that the RHS does much to encourage all communities to take part in horticulture, and to gain apprenticeships, and said that Sargeant was being ‘publicity-seeking’ by raising the issue of diversity.

However, the evidence that Chelsea is unrepresentative seems pretty compelling – at the community level it’s true that people from all walks of life, both female and male, enjoy gardening and have considerable expertise.  But there is no getting away from the fact that the Society of Garden Designers enjoys 70% female membership, but women have produced relatively few show gardens.  And there are a range of hurdles to getting on the roster for the Chelsea show, which might deter many without unusual determination, and, importantly, the ability to cultivate connections as well as plants.

2014 gold medal winner Charlotte Rowe wrote in the Guardian last year about the labyrinthine process of getting a show garden design from drawing board to Chelsea. This involves getting a charity partner and a commercial sponsor, as well as coming up with a strong, original design.  Show gardens do not come cheap – costing upwards of £300,000 to put on, and it may be that this poses particular challenges for women seeking funding.  It has been shown in many professional contexts that investors often favour male candidates, and that selection panels have a tendency to recruit males over females, so garden design is unlikely to be much different.  And like many creative professions, it is majority female in the lower echelons, but male-dominated at the top.

So it seems a shame that there has been a spat over the discussion of diversity at Chelsea.  Charity involvement means that social justice issues are often highlighted in the show. Alan Titchmarsh’s comments about gardening being open to all, included the observation that ‘nearly everybody has a front garden’.  This seems to go against the RHS’s own pre-show foray into media, which revealed that the high number of rental properties in the UK, means that many front gardens are disappearing under concrete, or left neglected by tenants with little motivation to do gardening in a place that is not their own.  These trends particularly affect the young, urban population – surely the kind of people Sargeant was talking about encouraging to take part in horticulture.  A rose may be a rose by any other name, but it would be a good thing if big names in garden design were attached to someone young, female or non-white a bit more often.

 

 

Different for girls?

20 Apr

A recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report on graduate incomes and social mobility has caused a bit of a stir. Researchers had access to data which meant they could link information on students’ institution of study and subject choice, and their subsequent earnings for up to ten years. The headline findings were that those from the wealthiest backgrounds earn significantly more than students from poorer families, even when they had studied for similar degrees in similar places; and that economics and medicine were the subjects with the highest-earning graduates. Less prominently reported were some marked gender differences in outcomes.

Given our unequal society and uneven education provision, it may not come as a shock that students from higher-income backgrounds end up earning more (10% more at median income levels after taking subject studied and institution attended into account).  But men’s earning advantage over similarly-educated women is striking, especially since the student population has been majority female for some time now.

While men’s median earnings ten years on were £30,000, women’s were £27,000 – this compares to figures for non-graduates of £22,000 and £18,000 respectively.  Therefore, graduating as a woman means gaining a slightly larger premium on average, but at lower earnings levels than is the case for men.  So studying may lift women a little further above others with fewer qualifications, but it does not necessarily put them on a par with similar male graduates, nor does the advantage grow at the same rate at the top of the income scale as occurs for men.  Men from the wealthiest backgrounds earn about 20% more than men from less well-off backgrounds in the top 10% of each group; for women the equivalent gap is 14%, indicating that being an advantaged male carries the biggest labour force premium of all.

If you take the two subjects with the highest earners of all, medicine and economics, the advantage of being a man becomes clear.  The two subjects have different profiles in terms of who studies them – the majority of medical students have been female for some time now, while under one third of economics students are women.  But no matter what the gender balance of students, the IFS results show that men earn more.  And the difference between men and women at the highest levels of income in each subject is clear.

Economics has the highest rewards at the highest levels, with the top 10% of women earning upwards of £94,000 – but the top 10% of men are earning at least £121,000; roughly 12% of male economics graduates will earn £100,000 or more, compared to 9% of women.

In medicine, women earn around £69,000 to make the top 10%, while for men the equivalent figure is £85,000. In a subject where most graduates are female, this difference seems worthy of attention.  Perhaps choice of speciality also has a role in the differential, as women remain rare in some high-status areas such as surgery.

Most of the media discussion of the IFS findings has been devoted to the stalled social mobility indicated by the persistent earning advantage enjoyed by students from the wealthiest backgrounds.  But even the most advantaged women in Britain are not earning the same as their male counterparts.  This raises the question of other underlying differences between men and women in progress from school to the labour market.   Men are more likely to study economics and STEM subjects, and women more likely to opt for arts subjects.  The study found that creative arts degrees had the lowest earners of all, and these courses are 55% female on intake.

But the example of medicine shows that even where women study a high status subject in high numbers, they are not reaping the same rewards as men. Ten years on, many erstwhile students will have become parents, and some may be looking after their own parents.  The impact of caring work is still experienced predominantly by women, and this is likely to play a part in the differences in earnings between male and female graduates, no matter what their field.  Alongside discussions of higher education’s role in improving social mobility, perhaps we should be talking more about the role of effective policies for shared parental leave and flexible working options.

It has been pointed out during the current junior doctors’ pay dispute that doctors working part-time (80% of whom are female) will lose out under the new contract proposals, which remove pay increments and reduce maternity pay and ‘on-call’ rates for those working less than full-time equivalent.  No wonder there has been anger that the government equality impact document reads “Any indirect adverse effect on women is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate end.”  While doctors have benefited from some pay equalisation up to now, the graduate earnings data suggests that women doctors are less likely to progress to the top rates of pay than man, even in the system as it is.

And a survey of women in the finance sector (a likely destination for top-earning economists) reported this week that two thirds of women felt that being female put them at a professional disadvantage, and that they would not recommend their career to their daughters. If this is how women at the top of the highest earning professions feel, what about the rest of us? Since women graduates consistently earn less than men – and male non-graduates also earn more than females, it seems that we cannot continue to believe that gender equality has basically been achieved.  The figures suggest that it is still true that it pays to be a man, and that even at the top, it really is different for girls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Shared Parental Leave

5 Apr

Happy Birthday to you

Daddies can take leave too

But you don’t replace their wages

So not many do

 

Happy Birthday to you

Mummies are employed too

But they have to give Dads their leave

So they can parent à deux

 

Happy birthday to you

Time to see culture change through

But we haven’t gone Nordic

No daddy months, boo hoo

 

Happy Birthday to you

A step the right way it’s true

But I’m getting impatient

For gender equality, aren’t you?

 

 

 

 

Candy Chancellor (with apologies to the Candy Man)

17 Mar

Who can take some storm clouds

Sprinkle them with dues

Cover them with cuts and a miracle or two

The Candy Chancellor can

The Candy Chancellor can

‘Cause he mixes in a sugar levy

And makes the world look good.

 

Who can take tax thresholds

Raise them with a smile

Cut tax and business rates

For your local shopping aisle

The Candy Chancellor can

The Candy Chancellor can

‘Cause he mixes in a sugar levy

And makes the world look good

 

Now talk about youth in crisis

You can even have lifetime ISAs

 

Oh who can take tomorrow

Dip it in a dream

Leave sorrow with the poor

and give the fat cats all the cream

The Candy Chancellor can

The Candy Chancellor can

‘Cause he mixes in a sugar levy

And makes the world look good

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